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for people who care about the West

The stories we believe

 

Madewell Brown
Rick Collignon
213 pages,
hardcover: $23.95.
Unbridled Books, 2009.

Madewell Brown is the fourth novel in Rick Collignon's "Guadalupe" series, which is set in an imaginary village in northern New Mexico. But it reads as a stand-alone, even while spiraling back to explore the fate of a character introduced in Perdido, the second in the series.

Madewell Brown, a black man with one arm longer than the other, landed in rural Guadalupe a half-century ago, lived there quietly for years, then mysteriously disappeared. Now his granddaughter Rachael retraces his steps from Illinois to find him, learning along the way about his past as a player in a traveling Negro League baseball team.

It's bold that Collignon, as an Anglo, writes intimately not only about Hispanic culture, but then adds in an African-American to stir his fictional plot. Madewell, unsurprisingly, never quite belonged in tight-knit Guadalupe, where family histories have been entwined for generations. "This is a place you get born into ... A black man here would be like an elephant. And no one would forget an elephant." 

Still, it appears that Madewell has been deleted from Guadalupe's memory. As village viejos veer between guilt and denial, it's down to a young man, Cipriano, ignorant of what happened before he was born, to put right the wrongs of the past.

Collignon digs deep into his theme of outsiders, haunted by questions that cross cultural divides. Which secrets do we take to the grave, which must we confess? What is it that makes family: shared blood lines or common values? Of the many stories passed down to us, which do we believe?

Madewell Brown is a beautifully written novel, made well in every sense. The intricate story unfolds from various viewpoints, including the journals of one of Madewell's former teammates, which evoke nostalgia for old-time baseball: "Madewell went out and threw so damn hard those boys was swinging at the echo of the ball smacking leather and the puffs of dust that come from Syvilles glove." 

Collignon plays the magic realism edge less here than in his previous books, but an eerie sense of the thin veil between worlds pervades the story. The outcome is thoughtful, tender, and righteous, and especially relevant in a year when our first black president moved into the White House.